The answer to this question relates to your political aims: mass appeal with the goal of largescale radicalization, or fringe appeal based on acting as an extremist political vanguard? Sometimes the line between the two seems blurry. The potential for a small group influencing a large group is present in both. The decision comes down to whether you want, at some point in the future, for the masses of students to agree with your tactics and be inspired by them, or whether you just want to “fuck shit up,” rattle them in their apolitical, apathetic slumber, and maybe make an impact after you’ve graduated in the form of stories about your conduct that inspire both horror and maybe a little romance for these “real revolutionary kids” who “didn’t give a fuck” and were “badasses.”
In reality, neither attitude is 100% right. Always suiting the predilections and prejudices of the masses leads to dilution of revolutionary fervor. Always utilizing the most disruptive tactics possible (to the extent that they cease to be tactical) alienates the common person from our struggle, especially those who have the most to lose and may have otherwise proven the most effective radical student leaders. One mindset is deferential to mass sensibilities, while the other is dismissive of them.
The truth is that the “mass appeal” advocates need the extremists to keep them in line with the radical goals and ideals, while the extremists need the mass appeallers to keep them relevant to the struggle, sensible-minded, and not working at cross-purposes or actually against the masses by incurring repressive reprisals from the Establishment. The only way for a mass student movement, or an individual activist, to survive, strive, and thrive is to combine both attitudes when approaching any particular area of disagreement.
Take that old bone of contention, recruitment, for example. A group’s members will have to decide at what point the principles of the group are being compromised for the sake of attracting people to your group and not scaring them away by being too “radical.” Issues of whether or not to suit “mass appeal” are problematic for nearly every political group (student and nonstudent) that I’ve ever heard of, often leading to friction and splits. The only way around it is for both sides to listen to each other, try to understand each other’s viewpoints, and make cogent arguments for or against a certain measure. Whether the disagreement pertains to working with a certain group or not, altering a logo or the wording on a flyer to be more “acceptable” to a greater number of people, or endorsing a mainstream political candidate or party, the first question should be, “is this tactical?” or, “how does this fit into our overall strategy?” and concomitantly, “does it seek to alter our overall strategy and/or message?”
In other words, if you seek the destruction of the two-party system, don’t tell people that voting Democrat is the answer to all of the world’s problems in order to get them to join your group. That’s a bad idea on many levels.
When it comes to barricading a building, acts of vandalism, holding a disruptive event, or boycotting an SGA election, “is this tactical?” is still the first question, and therefore the first thing that needs to be proven by whomever is advocating it. And if they can’t, well….maybe it’s time for them to form a “splinter group,” which I will discuss later.
When it comes to making statements or taking public positions on real things, like racism, police brutality, war, cops on campus, misogyny, etc, it is important to remember that you will, by definition, be limiting your audience. If your actual desire is to alter the course of humanity, you must not be afraid to separate the “wheat from the chaff.” But unlike wheat, a human being is not defined by her physical state but by her mental state; that is, her state is not static. She can change from chaff into grain if she is given the means and chooses to do so.
Part of what “radicals” do is articulate ideas and feelings that our “moderate,” middle-of-the-road, “don’t rock the boat”-oriented society doesn’t allow people to openly express, even if their consciences tell them that something is terribly wrong with the world. Should people be satisfied with endless wars, increasing poverty, millions in prison, a shrinking middle class, the oppression of women, and the like? No! And not only should we demand the end of these things, but we should demand their exact opposites, and not just a little of those opposites, but A LOT! An extreme amount of something good: not only no war, but world peace. Not only the end of poverty, but a high living standard and security for everyone. Not only people out of prison, but the re-integration of former inmates into society and the end of the poverty and deprivation and social stigma that lead to crime. Not only a strong middle-class, but no more billionaires at all, sucking up and hoarding the resources of humanity for their own wanton accumulation. Not only an end to oppression against women, but the complete empowerment of women over their own bodies, their careers, and their lives. Et cetera.
This is what “radicals” demand. But when you try to express these ideas to the average person, much of the time, you are met with heavy sighs and accusations of being an “idealist,” “naive,” or “childish.” And you must be able to respond to their accusation in a way that doesn’t insult their intelligence, but that draws them into your way of thinking and inspires them to grow towards a more critical, less content existence.
The challenge, then, becomes how to articulate your ideas in meaningful and concrete ways. This question of what to say and how to say it is often what decides whether a student group is wholly “radical” or wholly “reformist” in its essence. The choice of what to say and how to say it can depend on the material conditions of your college or university. For example, it is easier to communicate some element of these radical ideas to working- and middle-class people, and marginalized groups in general, who have suffered more acutely from the oppressive measures than folks in a more affluent, privileged, or “upper crusty” area.
At the same time, though, the question of what to say and how to say it also comes down to your personal disposition as an activist. If you cannot possibly stomach the thought of having people being “against you,” then it’s possible that, even though you may truly support the idea of a revolution and the total end of the status quo which creates oppression and exploitation, you don’t believe in it enough to get out of your comfort zone. I know what this feeling of doubt is like because I have always hated being disliked or disagreed with, even when a large part of me knows I’m right.
As is often the case, despite sincerely revolutionary sentiment in the activist’s mind, a certain fear of discomfort lingers, a discomfort instilled by a society based on complacency that tries to keep people from engaging in meaningful conflict at all costs and urges them to “mind their own business.” It is a difficult fear to face; getting chastised by authority figures—like parents, cops, teachers, et cetera—and the accompanying fear it engenders, is often identified as something to be avoided at an early age. But the fear can be overcome, in steps and phases, by being faced, and again, by asking the question “why?” and knowing how to react to these figures when they interpellate you.
I’m speaking quite abstractly here, so allow me to become a little more concrete. When SDS was protesting the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, some comrades and I were trapped by lines of riot police in an intersection, a practice known as “kettling.” I realized that I might just get my ass kicked. Having not engaged in any kind of physical conflict since middle school, I noticed that my knees were shaking. The protesters started yelling, “they’re running!” perhaps in fear. Then, the cops closed in. Some protesters fell and were injured, but the police line was not as impenetrable as it looked. Soon, most of us were free and running down the road towards the rest of the (illegal) march. I realized later that I had been afraid; my political convictions had nearly drawn me into a violent conflict with police. In other words, my political convictions had put my physical safety in danger. I questioned my convictions somewhat, but carried on, staying close to my friends.
The next night, a group of about 200 protesters participated in a spontaneous anti-capitalist march. Chanting and waving flags, we began to cross a small bridge extending over a dried-up trench which I assume was once a river. As the tail of the marchers arrived on the bridge, SWAT vans appeared at either side of it. Soon, we were just about trapped, confronted at both ends by riot cops who wanted nothing more than to kettle us on the bridge and beat the living shit out of us under cover of night. A line of stormtroopers blocked the bridge’s exit, while another approached us from its entrance. They came steadily closer from behind until they started running at us. Again, the protesters started yelling: “THEY’RE RUNNING!” Then, we ran from them. Batons started raining down on us. I was with a girl named Tatyana; she was on parole, having been arrested at another protest, and was terrified of being arrested again. We ran beside each other. As a cop caught up to us, his baton raised, she stumbled. But instinctively, without thinking, I reached back and grabbed her around the shoulder and pulled her towards me, away from him. His baton struck her heel; she was okay. We made it far enough towards the other side of the bridge that it was only a few feet above the ground. We jumped off, landing on soft earth, and made our way back whence we’d come.
Why am I telling you this romantic-sounding, but true, story? To illustrate that after you have faced your fear, and maybe even questioned your convictions, once put to the true test of seeing brutality and repression in action, you will know to do what is right, and not what is convenient. You will not let an innocent person be brutalized. You will not let the aura of authority carry any more weight than you bestow upon it.
But you must first test the limits of your comfort zone, and that takes time, practice, conscious effort, and growing your stores of the type of knowledge that IS power: knowledge of oppression.
It can be hard to know where you truly stand on issues of oppression if you have never been oppressed or threatened by “the system.” As activists at a university or college in the United States, many of us have heard more about oppression than have actually experienced it viscerally, especially us white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied cis-males.
The simple truth is that most people aren’t “radicals,” and if we want our movement to succeed, we’re going to need the support of “most people.” It is up to us as radical activists to make our ideas coherent to the masses and to clarify why they would be better than the status quo; it does not fall to the masses to accept our ideas without understanding them, nor is it their fault when they reject our ideas if we cannot explain and support them adequately. We mustn’t denigrate what critical thinking or skepticism people have, or blame them for requiring proof that our ideas are better.
Now, we don’t need literally everyone. We don’t need nazi scum, reactionary liberals, deranged right-wing nutbags, geriatric Reaganites, or free-market fetishists to “come around” to our side. Yes, sometimes their minds do change, but when this does happen, it happens through a long period of self-reflection. People yelling at each other on street corners or over the internet is usually not what gets it done.
Very generally speaking, these individuals’ entire identity and belief system is based on ideas which engender systematic oppression, exploitation, and social stratification, and at a certain point, they will defend the ideas for that egotistical reason—because their sense of identity depends on it—and not because the idea is the most sound, valid, or ideologically coherent.
We are, of course, also susceptible to this foible, and constant self-criticism and refinement are necessary in order to avoid its main pratfall: becoming dogmatic, inflexible, and incapable of articulating ourselves meaningfully, and apt to blame others for not automatically accepting or understanding something of which we ourselves cannot demonstrate a clear, flexible understanding.
This point brings us back to the original question: what kind of group are you? Whatever formal structure you choose, or lack thereof, keep this in mind: A group that is well-versed in its ideas and in the origin of those ideas, that knows what it is fighting for and how it plans to fight for it, that can give historical examples of how their strategies have succeeded, that has anticipated the counterarguments of their adversaries and prepared answers to deflect all of them, and that is willing to grow, change, and learn from its mistakes while remaining steadfast to its principles…this group and its members will not be afraid, and will win support.